An old drug boosted by University of Queensland researchers has been released as a new antibiotic that could terminate some of the world’s deadliest superbugs. The supercharge technique, directed by Dr. Mark Blaskovich and Professor Matt Cooper from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), possibly could regenerate other antibiotics. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, superbugs, trigger 700,000 deaths globally every year, and a UK government review has foretold this number could rise to 10 million by 2050.

Dr. Blaskovich said the old drug, vancomycin, was still extensively used to treat extremely dangerous bacterial infections, but bacteria were becoming increasingly resistant to it. “The rise of vancomycin-resistant bacteria, and the number of patients dying from resistant infections that cannot be effectively treated, motivated our team to explore methods to regenerate old antibiotics,” Dr. Blaskovich said.

The rebooted vancomycin has the potential to treat methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococci (VRE). Professor Cooper said pharmaceutical companies had left the antibiotic discovery field due to new antibiotics being hard to find and were not as worthwhile as cholesterol-lowering medications or cancer treatments. “Therefore, most scientists are re-engineering existing drugs to overcome bacterial resistance, instead of looking for new drugs,” he said.

“Drug development is normally focused on improving binding to a biological target, and rarely focuses on assessing membrane-binding properties.” This approach worked with the vancapticins, and the question now is whether it can be used to regenerate other antibiotics that have lost effectiveness against resistant bacteria.

“Given the terrifying rise of multi-drug resistant bacteria and the length of time it takes to develop a new antibiotic, we need to find any solution that could fix the antibiotic drug discovery pipeline now,” Professor Cooper said. The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, was supported by the Wellcome Trust, the world’s largest biomedical charity, and Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council.